Without inclusive and equitable education for all, countries will not succeed in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind. – UNESCO
Every child has the right to grow, learn, go to school and be welcomed and included by communities, teachers and peers alike. However, studies have shown that around the world, children are denied education and excluded from schools because of disability, race, language, religion, gender, and poverty. According to the 2019 State of the Education Report for India: Children with Disabilities report by the United Nations (UN), 75 per cent of children with disabilities (CWD) in India do not attend any educational institute in their lifetime. This is despite the existence of a seemingly comprehensive policy on education with provisions to make the Indian education system inclusive.
Inclusive education is a learning model where children coming from different backgrounds, with special needs or disabilities (CWD) attend the same schools as children who are from a certain strata of society or are termed as ‘normal’. This approach of education emphasises on changes in system-level practices and policies to meet student needs. However, even though India has a variety of laws and policies on education, data and on-ground experiences show that an ecosystem of inclusion has not yet been achieved.
When all children, regardless of their differences, are educated together, everyone benefits—this is the cornerstone of inclusive education. Talking about the quality of inclusive education at the school level in India, Abhimanyu Basu, Dean of Academics, Dhirubhai Ambani International School said, “India recognises that an effort needs to be made to keep up with the ever changing world, and there has been a concerted effort to recognise that a traditional approach to learning is not as effective anymore. There is a greater awareness about the benefits of inclusion. Previously special needs students would not be accepted in schools which had a larger population of neuro-typical children with standardised learning needs. These students would learn in special schools. Currently, there is a better understanding and acknowledgement of having a diverse student population where skills are of different types and pure academic success is not necessarily an indicator for automatic life success.” Basu also shed light on a key challenge that limits inclusive classrooms. “The Education Budget limits such growth, large class sizes and skewed teacher student ratios prevent teachers from having a personalized understanding of their students learning styles, and teacher training which covers the different kinds of disabilities and learning needs requires to be updated,” he said.
Approach to inclusive teaching and learning
The goal of an inclusive classroom is to provide all students with an appropriate learning environment to allow each the opportunity to reach their potential. Vasundhara Sanghi, HOD & Counsellor, Student Care Services, Dhirubhai Ambani International School believes that inclusive education is critical for educators to help students develop skills in an ever changing dynamic world. “Research has shown that differentiated instruction is effective for high-ability students, as well as students with mild to severe learning disabilities, and this approach helps students take ownership of their own learning. The latest trend is for education to be personalized and individualized. It is critical for educators to understand their students, how they learn and build on their strengths, while minimizing their challenges. For education to be inclusive, curriculum needs to be imparted using differentiation, which is tailoring instruction to meet individual learning needs.”
Inclusion also means creating safe learning spaces to ask questions freely, assertively and confidently share diverse opinions and accept diverse points of view. “A few years ago, a visually impaired student joined the school and to support the student, teachers and the student care department members underwent extensive training to learn the required skills. Learning to interact with the student, ensuring that the learning environment adapted and differentiated to suit the student’s learning needs was vital to him feeling that the school was a safe and secure space,” said Sanghi. “The recent shift to online teaching due to the pandemic required a swift shift of skills required to support this student, optimize his learning opportunities as well as engage him and other young people as the educators to adapt to this way of teaching and learning.”
Need for gender inclusive classrooms
Developing a positive learning environment and safe space isn’t just a nice idea, it’s a prerequisite to effective learning. Sanghi emphasises that schools are ideal spaces for developing a standardized attitude towards gender neutrality and gender sensitivity. “It is important that students are made aware that they belong to an urban privileged background and educate themselves about gender disparity and stereotyping scenarios that still exist and initiate many service activities to make a difference. At Dhirubhai Ambani International School (DAIS), the approach is one of opportunities for all irrespective of gender. This is initiated at the admissions stage, and once students enter school they are treated equally whether academically, sports or the creative arts,” she says.
“An active Student Council has positions that are gender equal. There are also discussions about gender differences, equality and sensitivity as part of curriculum, life skills programme and leadership talks invite speakers who speak to students about how they actively promote gender inclusivity in society,” she added.
Can the education system in India be truly inclusive?
Inclusive education in India can be difficult to access, where the field of special education is still nascent and funding is low. Basu states that in First World countries, the focus is on race inclusivity, but in India we need to now start looking beyond providing midday meals to keep underprivileged children in schools. “The recently introduced National Education Policy (NEP), when implemented will build on inclusion in education. Modern teacher training approaches, better student teacher ratios, focusing on student wellbeing are ways in which to enhance inclusion. There are smaller models that are working well and we have to take best practices and standardize education so it can be accessible to all being mindful of the diversity of our student population.”
Highlighting the importance of education technology, he further added, “Education technology which is mindful of 21st century skills can be utilized to bridge the gap and a motto ‘each child is important’ needs to be the essence of inclusive education which has a strength building approach. In addition, a balance needs to be maintained to keep the bright students engaged while also catering to the learning needs of gap learners and student with special needs. Finally, every school should engage the services of a special educator and counsellor who are specialized in supporting inclusion by providing academic, social and emotional support.”
Inclusivity and the National Education Policy, 2020
Embracing inclusivity in the education system involves restructuring wide range of educational patterns. This includes curriculum, tutoring and recreational opportunities, etc. Last year the Indian government announced that the aim of equity and inclusion is at the heart of the new NEP. The policy is designed to avoid segregation and isolation of ethnic and linguistic minorities, those with disabilities, and also those who face learning difficulties due to language barriers and are at the risk of educational exclusion. NEP’s biggest effort is to bring gender sensitivity as an integral part of curriculum and gender inclusion fund to be raised upto class 12 which covers all the socio-economically disadvantaged groups and also the transgenders.
In addition the government has announced Early Child Care Education (ECCE), inclusion of this system will help children of an early age to attain optimal outcomes in the domains of physical and motor development, cognitive development, socio-emotional-ethical development, cultural/artistic development, and the development of communication and early language, literacy, and numeracy.